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Park Operations in Australia: Same but Different

A world away downunder colorful parrots roosting in abundance are commonplace, everyone is a “mate”, and holidays are what Aussies call their vacations. In that exotic light you might expect the business of RV parks and resorts – known as caravan parks, tourist parks or even holiday parks in Australia – to operate differently than its counterparts in the US but the similarities might surprise you. Mom and pop parks proliferate. Corporate parks have their place. Some parks cater to the gray nomads, retirees or full-timers as we’d call them; others are a family affair complete with the requisite jumping pillow or pad and splash park; transient parks can be found as well as those that make a tidy business of catering to “tradies” or industry workers in an area for an extended period of time. Lastly, in combination with any of the above-mentioned parks are retirement or lifestyle villages offering permanent lodging to its residents.

Park marketing and promotion

One glaring difference is the absence of franchise parks and the abundance of referral and marketing groups. BIG4 Holiday Parks, Top Tourist, and Family Parks offer independent park operators economies of scale in regards to marketing their properties. For an annual fee parks can belong to the group that best fits their target market and rely, in part, on the group to market the brand, thus their park. Discovery Parks is a corporate chain, purchasing parks in desirable areas and operating them with management teams and central services. Each of these groups has a governing structure, specific logos and signage, and the marketing groups offer consumer memberships both online and at the park level. Memberships entitle guests to discounted stays, points programs allowing membership level upgrades, various discounts on products and services, and call ahead booking to other parks in the marketing group, though the latter is not not widely taken advantage of by the consumer.

State associations are the primary directory providers. Four-color glossy magazine style guides promote parks, suppliers, tourist areas and attractions via listings and advertisements. The Automobile Club provides star ratings and the directories are available to the consumer, free of charge, at most parks and visitor centers. Caravan parks, tourist parks and holiday parks are prominently represented at tourist bureaus and visitor centers both in brochure form as well as in guide book sections and listings.

Roofed accommodations the rage

What was most surprising to this reporter was that an assignment that began as one covering the Australian caravan industry almost instantly morphed into one reporting on the accommodation industry – the holiday market – operating under the guise of holiday parks. “Cracking the holiday market brings a much larger income. Turning only $300K annually means you can’t do much. Turn several million and you can change from a caravan park to a holiday park offering serious activities with university-trained staff. Guests want to come to North Star. As an industry we need to build in an all-inclusive experience for our guests. That’s how they do it in the cruise industry and it’s very successful,” said Ian Beadel, owner and operator of BIG4 North Star Holiday Resort and Caravan Park in Hastings Point, Queensland, Australia. Case in point, Terry Goodall, former BIG4 CEO and founder/director of the high-end boutique hospitality marketing firm PathFinder OutDoor Destinations, told WCM that extensive research went into understanding Australia’s accommodation customers. “Families were determined to be the ideal demographic and this has brought about extreme success at BIG4 and the industry as a whole. Interestingly, we also found that it was an ideal lodging option for business travelers – especially women – that wanted a safe, reasonably priced apartment-style accommodation when traveling.”

You’d be hard pressed to pull into a park in Australia and not find “roofed accommodations”. These come in a dazzling array of cabins, luxury villas – even two-story penthouses. At South West Tourist Park in South West Rocks, Queensland they sport colorful and extremely popular round-roofed spa villas that were used in the Sydney Olympics among their mix of lodging options. “Cabin accommodations offer another level of experiences for our guests. People expect the very best accommodations in Australia – even in holiday parks – and that’s what we must give them, it’s an important piece of our business,” said Richard and Kathryn Emerson, co-owners of the resort. In fact, several park owners expressed the opinion that without roofed accommodations the park business would not be a viable business model.

Brothers Ken and Geoff Illich at Brisbane Holiday Village, a family owned and operated property, are masters at analyzing their business and adjusting accordingly. Offering everything from luxury penthouse cabins for upscale holidaymakers to short term cabins that have accommodated sporting teams as well as members of the French Navy to long term corporate rental units, the brothers see any and all accommodation providers as their direct competition on different levels. Based on the prevailing market they may reallocate a structure from a holiday unit to an apartment unit, replace a site with a cabin or visa versa. “All necessary infrastructure is at each site and that allows us to adjust our accommodation offerings as the market requires,” noted the younger brother Geoff. This is made easier by the “retirement” of older roofed accommodations, sold to rural Queensland parks that have a need for this type of lodging but a budget that does not allow the purchase of new structures. These parks are delighted to acquire the structures and turn a tidy profit on the product, reaching up to 33 percent return on investment. For the Illichs’, the cabins are sold for approximately the amount paid new and allow them the opportunity to not only restructure but to refresh their inventory.

From lodgings basic to posh, many operators utilize online accommodation booking sites such as TripAdvisor, Booking.com or the Expedia’s newly acquired web property Wotif.com to sell bookings. However, several expressed dissatisfaction with the category that parks are listed under on certain sites, “specialty lodging”. Without a clear definition of specialty lodging they note that consumers may not take the time to explore their listing, even though their ratings are high. This dissatisfaction runs so high that the Illich’s are considering changing their park’s name from Brisbane Holiday Village to Brisbane Holiday Resort in order to be listed with hotel and resort properties.

Same but different

With roofed accommodations as standard operating procedure an idea just taking hold in the US, other operational issues grappled with by Australian operators will sound very familiar to their American counterparts.

  1. The premise of knowing who your customer is holds true on both continents.

Ian and his wife and partner Diana Beadel started small and made their share of missteps, as new business owners are prone to do. However, it didn’t take them long to understand that they could not be all things to all people. To that end, they divided their operation into four parts and tailor specific marketing and service campaigns for each piece of business. “The first part is young families, with children up to 13 years of age. They have over 200 days a year that they can spend with us between weekends, public holidays, and school holidays. That’s a market we want to be in. There are 35 other weeks of the year, Monday-Friday, that we fill with school groups visiting the onsite Marine Science Center as well as corporate groups, campground school attendees, etc. That’s two. Our cafe, Ripples Licensed Café, the store, game room, and laundry facilities make up the third part and provide bits and pieces of money – it all counts, and our retirement area is the fourth part of our pie. All require different marketing strategies to makes the place work as a whole,” said Ian.

  1. Technology is important, time consuming, and tough to keep on top of regardless of your skill or willingness.

Whether it’s listing available inventory on booking engines, building relationships on Facebook, promoting specials via email marketing, overseeing video production and posting, responding to online comments and reviews, or managing your marketing dollars with the help of analytics, technology is tough. It’s always changing, it’s time consuming, and it’s imperative.

Understanding the importance of digital marketing as well as the time and effort it takes to do it well, the top Aussie park operators have dedicated staff to assist them with this business building tool. Parks are taking a closer look at mobile websites, work with local tourism firms and, of course, rely on excellent customer service to develop brand evangelists and repeat/referral business. The Illichs’ pay close attention to Google Analytics and track trends closely both personally and with the help of an operational staff member that can slice and dice the data and run reports as needed. “We have to do more and more, we have to get that even better. You’ve got to know what’s working. We’re always introducing new marketing avenues and we can now quantify these via online tracking and analytics,” according to Geoff.

According to Richard and Kathryn, Australian consumers are just now beginning to expect Wi-Fi as an amenity. Some parks offer a small bit of data complimentary and add an additional charge for more. Often, however, rather than paying for additional data, guests will use their personal hotspots to connect.

  1. Innovation, creativity and thinking on your feet are imperative everywhere.

Every operator interviewed for this piece takes an active – sometimes leading – role in domestic and international industry and group associations, conferences, and more. In fact, they all expressed the importance of continual improvement and growth. Several sited the cruise industry as an example of excellent marketing, activities and amenities, and guest service. The cruise business and what can be learned from their operations is certainly in the crosshairs of successful holiday park operators. Ian noted that he and other park owners need to know what the best operators in the world are doing right now and lay down a five-year plan.

At North Star, Ian seeks out innovative ideas from his staff in the form of a “wish list”. He instructs all employees to participate and jot down their ideas to improve the resort. He does not care how radical they are and says the more wishes the merrier. “We ask the team to tell us where we should take North Star. Their ideas add up to millions and millions of dollars but on those lists are some diamonds. We settle on a budget, extract the moneymakers, maintenance ideas or needs, and those that offer long-term benefits to the business. This is a very important exercise.”

  1. It’s extremely expensive to operate a park in Australia – even more than in the US

Electricity runs a park of approximately 130 sites and seven roofed accommodation styles approximately $100K year. But it’s the staff compensation that is out of this world. Mandatory minimum wage runs around $20. Operators pay staff time and a half on Saturdays, double time on Sundays, and double time and a half on public holidays, of which there are 25 per year. All regular workers receive four weeks of paid vacation per year – from day one. In addition to standard wages, vacationers get an additional “load” or bump of 17.5 percent on top of their vacation pay as required by law. Workers compensation must be paid by the employer as well as 9.5 percent of wages to a super-annuation fund for the worker’s retirement.

With site fees running $35-$45 it’s no wonder roofed accommodations are imperative to financial success. “You must watch your expenses and staff. Costs must be passed on to consumers and the busy season, like in the US, is the lifeblood of the park’s annual income. We experience nearly 40 percent of annual turnover at Christmas with Easter following a close second,” shared Kathryn.

Holiday parks have earned respect

While the Australian caravan and holiday park industry still suffers a stigma in certain areas, parks like South West Rocks Tourist Park, North Star Holiday Resort and Caravan Park, and Brisbane Holiday Village are making every effort to change the less than positive perceptions. Top rated accommodations of all types, activities and amenities rivaling popular hotel chains, on-site restaurants, and relentless customer service serve to elevate every RV, caravan, or holiday park around the world. Terry left us with this thought, “In Australia the park industry has really come of age, part of mainstream tourism and hospitality. The ‘outdoor-ness’, community, and overall feel of an outdoor holiday coupled with upscale, high-quality lodging and range of facilities delivers a memorable experience, keeping our industry top of mind with holiday decision makers.”